Culture Shock

Before I left the states, I took an online orientation course through my company. In one of the units, we talked about the stages of cultural transition. The first one is the honeymoon—it was supposed to last for a few months. The next stage on the chart was culture shock—supposed to come with feelings of avoidance, frustration and anger.

I’ve just passed my two month anniversary and I’m definitely hitting a wall. I’m not angry, but I’m often tired and frustrated. I’m doing my best to channel this energy into empathy for my refugee friends who have definitely experienced something similar. In the interest of sharing that empathy, I thought I’d write about four of the biggest cultural challenges I’ve encountered so far:

1. Time

Time here is relationally driven, not productivity driven. People don’t rush from one appointment to the next the way we do in the states. Nothing is urgent, everything is a process. It’s refreshing to get away from the American obsession with immediate gratification. Even so, letting go of the western clock is harder than I thought it would be. 

Case in point: the national airline. I flew back from London on the national airline after Christmas. It’s lavishly hospitable—I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a plane that served so much food—and yet it’s wildly inefficient with a reputation for long delays. People wander onto the plane long after the official boarding period. When there are no stakes involved, I don’t mind going with the flow—but on this trip, I had planned on getting back to the capital well before dark so I’d be able to make the intercity journey back home before sunset. Because my flight was delayed for three hours without explanation, I ended up making the long journey alone after dark.

2. Language

While I’ve been working with a language tutor since I arrived, I’m still very much a beginner. I can recognize a few hundred nouns and conjugate several verbs. I’ve memorized set phrases, and sometimes I can tell the topic of a conversation when I’m actively listening. My mind is always spinning, trying to decode what it hears. Despite all that, I can barely construct a sentence. Not speaking the common language is like walking around with an invisible handicap. Imagine you’re on a train and you’re trying to figure out when to get off. There are no signs or announcements at the stops and you want to ask someone about your destination, but you struggle to formulate a clear question. That was me after dark on the way home from the airport this week.

3. Food

There are definitely some wonderful foods here—I love the fresh bread in the mornings and I’m sure I’ll never go back to the cardboard we sometimes eat in the states. I try to be brave and eat all sorts of new and exciting foods. I distinctly enjoy fresh Dorade (a fish) despite the fact that it’s served whole. But then there’s harissa—a spicy paste that’s generously applied to nearly every dish.  I really dislike harissa.

I remember when my refugee friends first arrived in the states. We threw parties for them and invited them over to share holiday meals. I have a new sense of compassion for their experience—trying so many new foods with unfamiliar ingredients and flavors. I’m sure they felt a pressure—just like I do—to pretend to like everything.

4. The “Line”

This one is the most difficult to explain but also the most grating. In my home culture, I know where the lines are—what’s ok, what’s not ok. Here, I’m never completely sure.

How late should I be to a scheduled hangout? How much food should I leave on my plate? Should I keep insisting to pay at a restaurant with a friend? Was I expected to bring a gift back from my travels? Am I being overly direct? Is my clothing modest enough?

I find “the line” especially challenging when it comes to gendered interactions. Some rules seem to apply only to expats, while others are more universal. For example, I think I’m supposed to avoid eye contact with men when walking in order to keep from being perceived as forward or loose. When I respond in conversations with men, I’m never sure if I’m coming across as flirtatious. In the West, I know that line—here, I’m constantly second guessing myself and hoping that people will excuse my mistakes.

As you read through this list, I hope it gives you a sense of compassion for refugees and immigrants near you. Transitioning to a new culture is difficult and disorienting. I have the luxury of knowing I’ll return to my home culture this summer. Most refugees don’t have that comfort. So next time you cross paths with someone who’s new to America, think of me, and be as kind and welcoming as you possibly can.

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